Toward a better understanding of addiction


January 29, 2014

ARCS and Vertex scholar Melanie Pina travels to Boston, tours biotech lab, presents science

Melanie Pina's interest in neuroscience and the brain began at an early age—when she was in elementary school. She used to explore her father's old human anatomy textbooks from college, but the only pages she really looked at were the sections on the brain. "I'm sure I couldn't pronounce half the names of the brain regions at the time," said Pina, "but it was incredibly fascinating to learn about the different areas of the brain and what each area was important for in making the body function."

After graduating with a degree in psychology from the Indiana University of Pennsylvania,  where she conducted research on the involvement of the serotonin 5–HT1A receptor in cocaine–induced anxiety, Pina enrolled at OHSU, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Behavioral Neuroscience.

Working with her mentor, Chris Cunningham, Ph.D., professor of behavioral neuroscience, Pina's research is focused on the neurobiological substrates that underlie drug reward and addiction. Her current investigation examines how environmental stimuli associated with previous alcohol exposure can induce alcohol seeking behavior and the neural circuits and signals that support this behavior.

At OHSU, Pina, an ARCS scholar, has found success in the lab, publishing a paper in the journal Psychopharmacology on experiments she performed to examine the effects of dopamine D1 and D2 receptor antagonist drugs on the acquisition of ethanol-induced conditioned place preference (CPP). Her latest paper, which details two experiments that examined the dose-related effects of a novel cannabinoid receptor antagonist on the acquisition and expression of ethanol-induced conditioned place preference (CPP), will soon be published in the journal Alcohol.

Her investigations have not gone unnoticed. In fact, Pina's work in the lab has resulted in her receiving a Vertex scholarship. The OHSU-Vertex Educational Partnership Program offers $35,000 scholarships funded by Vertex Pharmaceuticals, a biotechnology company based in Cambridge, Mass. The award will fund Pina's stipend and fees for one year.

"I absolutely love what I do and I love doing it at OHSU," said Pina. "I feel honored to work with such passionate and dedicated people. I really appreciate how collaborative the environment is at OHSU. The faculty here are also very supportive and always open to discussing my ideas and research."

Pina's association with Vertex has been extremely helpful. "Thanks to the support from Vertex, I've been able to do what I love most and dedicate my time to research in the lab. Most notably, this award provided me with a rare opportunity to travel to Vertex in Boston to get an inside look at how a pharmaceutical company runs. During my visit, I got to tour some of their labs, which was incredibly exciting."

Pina hopes to one day have her own lab where she can continue her research and train future addiction researchers. 

About the ARCS Scholar Award

The ARCS Foundation Scholar Award is $18,000, payable over three years at $6,000 per year, with each award presented in October. Recipients of these highly sought-after awards have gone on to conduct significant breakthrough research in fields of science and technology; found companies; receive patents; publish extensively in major science journals; and receive national or international science-based awards. 

Learn more